The Invention of Lying appears to be a comedy like Liar Liar, exploiting the situational humor of candor. Shallow slapstick it is not. Unlike Tom Shadyac’s 1997 film, it’s a thought experiment following honesty to its logical conclusion—chiefly concerning religion.
Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is a screenwriter in a world where everyone is incapable of lying. All movies are, naturally, documentaries because fiction with sets and actors would be a fabrication. His documentaries, covering the 1300’s, are the least popular. One can’t imagine a truthful documentary about the Dark Ages being very uplifting for the general public. But then, what would be in a world like this? On its way to sharing the tale of how Mark invents religion—bagging the gorgeous Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) along the way—the film raises doubts about its own logic.
The distinction between thoughts and facts is blurred in a few places. People speak as if they’re reading car manuals, proffering unsolicited truths. This plays nonsensically, since any person relating a truthful experience in our world wouldn’t sound like a comic book character narrating every agonizing thought in their head. Not all thoughts need be verbalized, even without a duplicitous motivation for withholding them.
As Bellison is struck with the concept of deceit, we see neurons firing off in his brain—a switch flipped. At first, he thinks small—money, sex. Eventually he graduates to nobler endeavors—patching relationships, subsidizing the homeless. But the story centers on his most selfless lie. His mother (Fionnula Flanagan) near death, Mark assuages her fears assuring her of an afterlife. Soon, the hospital staff and the entire town catch on and want to know more. The lie has snowballed and he can’t stop it. But here’s his opportunity to singlehandedly invent religion and put himself at the center of it. Isn’t it interesting how that works? Can you think of any other examples of self-professed soothsayers who positioned themselves nearest to their god? Here there is no word for a “lie,” or conversely “truth,” or god… “The man in the sky,” is known simply as that.
The film’s premise inches toward Harold Ramis’ brilliant Groundhog Day, in which the weatherman, Phil (Bill Murray), is stuck in a loop re-living the same day again and again. Immediately the possibilities of infinite knowledge and wisdom are explored. Phil becomes like a prophet or a god to the people around him, knowing everything about them. Like Phil, parlor tricks aren’t enough for Mark. But The Invention of Lying stops short of asking much deeper questions about human nature or humanity. Instead, it levels off at seeing through the occasional necessity of affording people their supernatural, if highly irrational, beliefs. While death is something we all inevitably experience, none of us is equipped very well to handle what happens next. We all confront our own uncertainty of what is or isn’t beyond.
While The Invention of Lying goes no further than paraphrasing Karl Marx, Groundhog Day pushed its protagonist to genuinely concern himself with understanding those around him for more than personal gain. Here, Mark’s personal gain is Anna, and nothing occupies his mind more than wanting to be with her. He has all the power in the world, yet feels comparatively little of the responsibility. By contrast, Phil began with a desire to impress Rita, but his journey gradually transformed into self-improvement for its own sake. Mr. Gervais, writer and director, has given us a static, crass Phil Connors to introduce the world to belief in the supernatural. Where are the Ghostbusters when you need them?
The Invention of Lying • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 100 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference.
• Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures